Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left deserted on Mars. His crew (including Jessica Chastain, Michael Peña, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara) are forced to evacuate their red planet mission when a giant sand storm threatens to destroy their rocket. When they discover that he's alive they turn back to attempt rescue. Watney's goal; "science the shit out of" the newly abandoned habitat to stay alive.
The Martian is a formidable film. Ridley Scott balances the epic interplanetary scope of the rescue endeavour and the confessional proximity of astronaut Mark Watney's (Damon) ordeal. Drew Goddard does a solid job contrasting the inherent horror of the scenario with humour, and the diverse cast featuring Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong and Donald Glover create a tapestry of authentic characters layering the story.
What's missing? Feeling.
The Martian is as clinical as an operating theatre. Scott uses Damon and his earth bound counterparts to portray feat after feat of human ingenuity with the humanity of David (Michael Fassbender) the android from Prometheus. It's a film that's devoid of stakes; like a trip to the casino where they'll reimburse you all the money you blew on roulette the minute your pockets are empty. There's really not a single moment in any part of the film that you're not absolutely certain Watney is going to make it out alive. Watney uses the habitat's recording devices as an imaginary audience to maintain his sanity and explain how he's going to stay alive. It's an intergalactic one man show.
And just as David the android quietly idolised and emulated Peter O'Toole as Lawrence of Arabia (aesthetically and parroting of dialogue - "the trick Mister Potter is not minding that it hurts"), The Martian riffs on Apollo 13, Castaway and Gravity (and a sprinkle of Avatar) to deliver something familiar and sickly, like a microwave meal claiming to taste 'just like a home-cooked meal.'
The performance that determines the films success is chatty Matt Damon's Mark Watney; and it really pales in comparison to his other work. If you want a performance lesson in subtlety and nuance, watch Damon in the Robert Deniro directed The Good Shepard. If you want Damon with repressed volcanic intensity, watch The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum. And if you want to see Damon's best desperate terrified, flawed and crazed astronaut, it's in his refreshing guest role in Interstellar, not The Martian.
I like my "alone in space" movies to be far weirder and more cerebral than The Martian. Scott or Damon can stay on Mars; fly me to to Sam Rockwell and the Moon or directly into the Sun with Danny Boyle.
Blake Howard- follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: Ridley Scott Written by: Drew Goddard based on the book by Andy WeirStarring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis, Donald Glover